On Mideast Peace, Europeans Hold Obama to His Words

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When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s sometimes a certain disconnect between what President Obama says and what he does. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven adept at widening that gap, and ensuring that he’s not pressured to meet Obama’s expectations. But America’s European allies appear increasingly inclined to act on the basis of the President’s words rather than to follow the retreats he makes under domestic political pressure. And that could cause problems for both the U.S. and Israel in the months ahead.

In February, Washington’s closest European allies overruled U.S. objections and voted in favor a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Obama Administration may have protested, dutifully, that the U.N. vote was unhelpful to the “peace process”, but the Europeans weren’t buying the fiction that there was any “peace process” to speak of between Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership. And besides, President Obama himself had publicly warned Israel, in his May 2009 Cairo speech, that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements… It is time for the settlements to stop.”

Sure, Obama caved, under bipartisan political pressure, on his demand that Israel observe a settlement freeze, but U.S. domestic politics was no reason for the Europeans to follow suit. So, last February they sent a message, through the 14-1 voting margin at the Security Council, that the U.S. is isolated even from its closest allies when it runs interference for Netanyahu’s continued defiance of the international consensus.

Now, the pattern appears to be repeating itself as President Obama seeks support for his effort to block a Palestinian move for U.N. recognition of a state on the 1967 lines in September. Fine, say the Europeans, but then you need a credible alternative. E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has reportedly written to Obama urging that the U.S. and its allies convene new peace talks based on the principles outlined in President Obama’s recent Middle East speech — the one that Netanyahu made headlines for rejecting over its call for negotiations based on the 1967 borders. Ashton reportedly wrote:

“I believe that what is needed now is a clear signal to the parties, and a reference framework that should enable them to return to the negotiating table. President Obama, in his speech on May 19, laid down two important elements that can be the basis for a resumption of negotiations: Borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, and firm security guarantees.”

She recommended that this position be publicly endorsed by the Middle East Quartet – the U.S., EU, Russia and the U.N. – as a set of guidelines, together with EU recommendations on Jerusalem as a shared capital and a just and agreed upon solution to the refugee issue, for renewed talks. But the last time the Europeans tried to get the Quartet to put peace guidelines on the table, Washington squelched the move by declining to convene the group. And the U.S. appears reluctant to pick a new fight with Netanyahu, even as he resists embracing those guidelines.

Ashton said said restarting credible negotiations, i.e. based on implementing the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution rather than the open-ended chats that Washington conducted last year,  was vital before the end of the summer, in order to forestall a diplomatic and political crisis created by the Palestinians going to the U.N. Obama has struggled to line up European support for a blocking maneuver, with key allies remaining non-committal. Ashton’s letter appears to be setting a price for their support — they’ll back moves to keep the issue out of the UN only if the U.S. can point to a credible alternative for moving rapidly towards Palestinian statehood based on 1967 lines.

Essentially, the Europeans are saying that if Netanyahu wants the U.N. process dropped, he has to commit to the principles outlined in the Obama speech, as well as the consensus on Jerusalem and refugees that the President sidestepped. But there’s little reason to believe President Obama is ready to press Netanyahu to accept his terms. Not with an election year around the corner; perhaps not ever. And as much as Washington would like Netanyahu to accept the terms outlined in his speech — as the Palestinian leadership have done — the Israeli leader is showing no signs of complying.

The problem facing the Administration is that international impatience with the stalled U.S. peace process has reached a point where more photo-op diplomacy won’t suffice. The world wants to see progress on a two-state solution, and believes Israel has to be pressed on the matter. But the bipartisan embrace of Netanyahu on Capitol Hill recently is a reminder that pressing Israel to do anything it’s reluctant to do is one of those proverbial “third rail” issues in American politics.

So, while Obama can be counted upon to deliver U.S. support for Israel’s position on any U.N. vote, his ability to persuade other countries to vote with him is rapidly declining.

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